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Digital Health Investors Want Innovation, Even if Inspiration Comes from Fortnite


Why is healthcare still failing to emulate cross-industry success stories?

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They always say to follow the money. So when the Klas Research Digital Health Investment Symposium brought investors and other stakeholders in the digital health economy to Snowbird, Utah last week, I spoke with some of them about the event and the state of digital health investment. The feedback I heard on the market outlook was mixed. Large investments have been made in 2018, and large corporations such as Amazon have entered the market. Where these changes will take digital health investment, however, remains to be seen.

I spoke with Sarah Sossong, M.P.H., of Flare Capital, who has an extensive background in innovation in telemedicine and the delivery side of healthcare. She was voted one of the “Most Influential Women in Health IT” of 2018 by FierceHealth.

>> WATCH: Investor War Stories: A Health App Goes Awry

The theme of the investment summit was “innovation in talent,” with the idea that a more seamless integration of industry and outside partners will create the best investments and better patient outcomes in healthcare. Sossong aptly described the landscape of digital health investment:

“The groundwork laid by banking and commerce in transforming consumer expectations and technology solutions provides an incredible opportunity for those of us in digital health to leverage a receptive stakeholders group of patients and providers to transform the healthcare environment as well.”

And there are other places to look for transformation inspiration.

A few months ago, Pokemon Go launched trading between players. Pokemon Go has been around for a few years and is probably the most successful digital health mobile app on the market. One might ask how a game, particularly one that most people do not associate with healthcare, had the most success improving digital health. The answer is deceptively simple: Players were rewarded for moving. You can hatch “eggs” (and thus acquire surprise Pokemon characters) just by walking around. The game is also based on geolocation, and users get different prizes at each physical spot. Players were moving. Walking to hatch eggs. Interacting.

But the vast majority of digital health products have yet to reward patients in a similarly enticing way. I’ve heard from investors that we don’t generally see the same universal quality in a consumer-facing (or, in this case, patient-facing) app that can be seen in other industries, such as gaming. A lot of the digital health and health IT problems aren’t “sexy.”

Anyone who has seen the user interface and user experience design of electronic health records (EHRs) knows they aren’t great-looking. There is also the problem of healthcare data. We have taken paper records and billing and made them into an electronic master index without enough attention to how this affects users.

One panelist was a big fan of getting the information out of the EHR and closer to where the patient is. This can be done by making data accessible through wearables, like a Fitbit, or enabling patients to easily carry their personal health information on their phone. This problem of getting high-quality information to patients in a way that drives the same value as a platform like Facebook remains unsolved within the digital health industry.

In other words, the “unicorn” of digital health investments has yet to be discovered, although many companies are trying. This means there exists a huge opportunity for adept investors, for expertise in regulations and health to combine with an understanding of human behavior to improve patient healthcare.

One of the most memorable moments of the conference was Russ Cucina, M.D., speaking about his opportunity to recruit talent in the San Francisco tech market. Many of the highest-paying jobs in IT are not in healthcare. If we can get the same experts in human behavior and turn their focus towards improving healthcare, not only will product value exponentially improve, but we’ll also see measurable improvements in the health of our population. Mission-driven digital health talent needs the same level of expertise found in the best and highest-paying development jobs.

There’s a scary amount known about how to change behavior. It’s just not known in healthcare. I would love to see someone who is tired of figuring out how to get people to play more Fortnite and get them to eat more vegetables. That’s where the best science exists — it’s just not in the healthcare system. Russ Cucina, M.D.

So what did the symposium contribute to this shift? Sossong said its greatest value was the opportunity for industry professionals to work together at a high-level digital health event in work sessions. Klas Research had some curated working groups at the Investment Summit, which allowed for the most interesting content. Sossong touted that importance of creating opportunities to work together and how technology is facilitating that improvement.

“The exponential pace of technological change provides an incredible opportunity to learn, build and create transformational products and services in a way that has never been possible before,” she said.

When we look around to improve from within and collaborate with tech partners in different and successful industries, digital health products will experience innovation. The work of healthcare improvement through digital health and investment will accelerate. And that’s good news, whether the inspiration comes from Pokemon Go, Fortnite or years spent in the clinic.

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